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Helicopter technology developments and trends driven by their rising employment in civil and military missions

The helicopter is a type of aircraft which is lifted and propelled by one or more sets of horizontally revolving overhead rotors.  It has two rotors that spin several blades. A blade is a tilted airfoil, just like an airplane wing. As it speeds through the air, each blade generates lift. The primary reason for the increasing demand for helicopters is their unique features such as take-off and landing, the ability to hover, fly forward and backward, and laterally. As a helicopter has the operational feature of vertical take-off and landing, it can be efficiently operated in remote locations. Also, it minimizes the overall cost and time of the flight.


Nowadays, lightweight helicopters are widely used for commercial applications owing to their benefits such as high reliability, safety, and easy operating systems. The commercial helicopters are used for public transportation at tourist places. They are also used for corporate travel and as air ambulances. Civil usage of helicopters for transport and emergency services has also generated a demand for helicopters for civil applications in the US. As per the University of Chicago Aeromedical Network, in 2018, approximately 900 helicopters undertook 300,000 flights as air ambulances.

A rise in the smart city projects in India and China, the increasing government initiatives for improving medical facilities, and rising investment by private hospitals in infrastructure development are creating high demand for the emergency medical service (EMS) helicopters. These services are preferring helicopter as an air ambulance, which helps the emergency medical response team to reach at any remote location. Hospitals prefer air ambulance services over roadway transportation owing to benefits, such as fast and safe transportation of patients to the hospital. Moreover, rise in the human organs transportation through air ambulance is also supporting the growth of the EMS helicopters, which in turn, would drive the helicopter market growth rate in the coming years.


Helicopters have also become a truly multi-purpose, versatile military asset. They are being designed for multi-role configuration to maximum flexibility and utility for operations in the multiple mission   scenarios such as ASW, ASuW, Special Operation, Commando Operation, Amphibious assault, Troop Carrier, ELINT, SAR, External cargo carrying, Casualty evacuation, Communication duties and CSAR. They are being operated from ships and ashore. It is. The mission like Special Operations, Combat SAR and Personal Recovery require performance, precise navigation and survivability.


The performance of today’s helicopters has improved dramatically, which accounts for their current broad acceptance and application. Advances in many technologies are responsible for the enhanced status of the helicopter today such as fields of dynamics, flight control, acoustics, safety, simulation, and above all mathematical modeling and computational methods.


The helicopters have many important subsystems are airframe, engine, avionics, landing gear system, and cabin interiors. The recent helicopter technology trends are hybrid-electric propulsion, autonomous flight technology, electro-optical and infrared systems (EOIR), electronic flight instruments (EFI), and ultra-light multi-mode radar flight vision systems (EFVS).


Autonomous flight technology is being adopted broadly by the manufacturers and helicopter operators.  The autonomous technology is enabled by advancements in artificial intelligence, data analytics, and the internet of things (IoT). These technologies assist in improvabled by ing the helicopter flight operations, thereby making the ights near to the autonomy leve


In  engine segment many manufacturers, namely, GE Aviation and Rolls-Royce are investing in hybrid engine technologies. These engine manufacturers are also conducting research and development activities to design efficient hybrid helicopter engines. The rise in the fuel cost would create demand for the hybrid-electric propulsion as they are electrically operated. For instance, In June 2019, Airbus SAS integrated an electric propulsion system as a backup system into H130 demonstrator. This was part of a research project that was carried out by Airbus SAS. The technology would provide safety in case of a single-engine shuts down during operation.


The use of advanced technology and lightweight systems and components in the helicopter have helped to reduce the overall weight and cost of the helicopter. The materials also play a vital part in performance of helicopters. They employ fibrous composite blades which has improved their aerodynamic efficiency and eliminated the need for periodic replacement of rotor system components.


In Apache Helicopters, the core structure of each blade consists of five stainless steel arms, called spars, which are surrounded by a fiberglass skeleton. The trailing edge of each blade is covered with a sturdy graphite composite material, while the leading edge is made of titanium. The titanium is strong enough to withstand brushes with trees and other minor obstacles, which is helpful in “nap-of-the-earth” flying (zipping along just above the contours of the ground). Apaches need to fly this way to sneak up on targets and to avoid attack. The rear tail wing helps stabilize the helicopter during nap-of-the-earth flight as well as during hovering.



Landing gears

Today, most operational helicopters are on skids, wheels, and (where needed) floats. The concept of using skids –­ and other forms of landing gear — was born out of innovation from pilots and mechanics in the field to adapt the aircraft to their operational environments. Various landing gear configurations are being considered



Propulsion trends

Single engine operative (SEO) mode which allows a twin engine helicopter to shut down one of its engines while in cruise to save fuel, and restart it again rapidly when needed. Airbus Helicopter presented the environmental Clean Sky 2 demonstrator to prove that new technology could make helicopters more environmentally friendly by reducing noise and emissions


There is trend towards Hybridized propulsion which combines advanced thermal engine cores for the main propulsion with electric distribution and motors to drive the system for further control and rudimentary vehicle operations and maintenance. Bell Helicopter has unveiled a new future helicopter concept featuring a range of next-generation technologies. Electric hybrid system in the tail rotor for a hybrid anti-torque system.  Multiple fans and an allowance for a venting system on both sides of the tail, so that it can thrust in either direction.


Fly-by-wire and autonomous capabilities

In Apache Helicopters,The main rotor, attached to the top of the helicopter, spins four 20-foot (6-meter) blades. The pilot maneuvers the helicopter by adjusting a swash plate mechanism. The swash plate changes each blade’s pitch (tilt) to increase lift. Adjusting the pitch equally for all blades lifts the helicopter straight up and down. Changing the pitch as the blades make their way around the rotation cycle creates uneven lift, causing the helicopter to tilt and fly in a particular direction.


The future cockpits are being designed with advanced interfaces to reduce pilot workload allowing them to allocate more time to mission management. Fly-by-wire controls such as in Military rotorcraft NH90 and the CH-53K may help reduce workload, too. Fly-by-wire and autonomous capabilities allow for single seat pilot.


The Dual Duplex 4-axis Automatic Flight Control System (AFCS) provides unrivalled functionality plus ‘carefree’ handling to provide a safety envelope to ensure that the aircraft envelope and limitations are not exceeded in normal flight or in emergencies.


Dan Toy, principal business development manager for avionics at Collins Aerospace, said that making fly-by-wire affordable is a challenge, largely because controls have to be triple redundant, and this extends to every single element. “You have to make the system work under any type of failure, so it increases complexity,” he said.


The AI is also being employed for automation in fly-by-wire control which may enable helicopter to autonomously take off and fly to a waypoint and avoiding obstacles. Sikorsky has conducted extensive research in that direction with the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft (SARA) demonstrator, an S-76 fitted with special equipment to give it various degrees of automation. “We demonstrated a helicopter can be flown with a tablet — without conventional gauges, horizon line etc. — using just a flight profile,” said McMillen.


“There is a paradigm shift on how raw data can be replaced with a mission or flight intent, ” Jon McMillen, in charge of business development for Sikorsky Mission Systems. “The information is becoming more consolidated, easier to digest, with less raw data,” said McMillen. An automated checklist may include tests running on their own, using oil pressure sensors for instance. “You can have the system run it through the startup process, pointing to a system you need to look at and interrogate,” said McMillen.



The use of autopilots may become widespread in the future. The use of such systems has already been democratized to an extent — the Airbus H135 light twin has been offered with a four-axis autopilot for a few years, while the Genesys HeliSAS is bringing complete two-axis autopilot functionality to a growing number of light aircraft types.


However, Trust is an issue with current automation and when the situation gets worse, some pilots no longer have confidence in the system, and resort to disconnecting autopilot. There is also limitation of current AI and machine learning systems. These based on neural networks, while learning from a large amount of data, works in an empirical way, but it is capable of making an error. Moreover, the system cannot explain its choices, thus undermining the confidence a human operator may want to place into it.


An algorithmic (i.e. deterministic) form of AI exists, but is 10 years behind probabilistic AI. Some advanced automated systems incorporate algorithmic AI. “Our auto rig approach feature is a form of AI: it knows your goal, flight regime and brings you there safely,” said Sikorsky’s McMillen.


Advanced Helicopter Cockpit Avionics System (AHCAS)

The Advanced Helicopter Cockpit Avionics System (AHCAS) is designed to assist the crew in performing Flight, Navigation, Communication and Mission management through glass cockpit displays, digital computers and associated centralised cockpit controls. It includes the following subsystems: -Vehicle Monitoring System -Flight Display System -Auto-pilot -Health & Usage Monitoring Systems -Mission Suite for Civil Customer (Flight management) or Military Market (Digital map & Electronic warfare) -Avionics Maintenance Ground Station


The Advanced Helicopter Cockpit Avionics System (AHCAS) is composed of 4 Multi Function Displays (MFD), 2 Vehicle Management System colour displays (VMS), 1 Integrated Stand-by Instrument LCD (ISI) and new 4-axis Digital Automatic Flight Control System (DAFCS), Air Data Computer (ADC) and Attitude and Heading Reference System (AHRS).


Another important factor is the Human Machine Interface. HMI is designed around a modern Glass Cockpit concept. Two Vehicle Management Displays, located in the central part of the front panel, and four Piloting displays, based on 6”X8” landscape format, for mission and piloting purposes, offer better mission reliability.


The main concern of the new glass cockpit is the ability to cope with various mission needs. For helicopters, this is a very new situation compared to commercial aircraft needs. Moreover the missions of the helicopter are in constant evolution to cover new operational use for military operations but also civil ones as the all weather helicopter.


Enhanced flight vision system (EFVS, sometimes EVS)

An Enhanced flight vision system (EFVS, sometimes EVS) is an airborne system which provides an image of the scene and displays it to the pilot, in order to provide an image in which the scene and objects in it can be better detected. In other words, an EFVS is a system which provides the pilot with an image which is better than unaided human vision.


An EFVS includes imaging sensors (one or many) such as a color camera, infrared camera or radar, and typically a display for the pilot, which can be a head-mounted display or head-up display. It enables a crew to see through fog or at night.  Flight data, such as speed and an artificial horizon, is superimposed on the picture. Combined vision adds synthetic terrain. An EFVS may be combined with a synthetic vision system to create a combined vision system. An EFVS can be mounted on military or civilian aircraft, fixed wing (airplane) or rotary wing (helicopter).


The image must be displayed to the pilot conformal to the scene, i.e. the pilot must see the artificially displayed elements in exact positions relative to the real world. Usually along with the enhanced image, the system will display visual cues such as a horizon bar and runway location.

Synthetic vision

Honeywell is providing Leonardo’s helicopter division with a cockpit upgrade — Honeywell’s innovative Primus Epic 2.0 — for its AW139 helicopters. Primus Epic 2.0 will deliver features intended to provide better maps, improved situational awareness at night and in marginal weather, and easier access through wireless connectivity.


The navigation system is track-based, which the companies claim is a first for the industry. A track-based navigation system means the navigation follows the actual path of the helicopter and accounts for wind and other environmental factors.


The Primus Epic 2.0 Phase 8 upgrade includes the SmartView synthetic vision system which is usable all the way down into the hover, according to the company, to help pilots navigate during low-visibility conditions and challenging missions. A more user-friendly, iNAV map visual interface will also aid pilots and crews during missions.


Connectivity capabilities are also increased with the upgrade. Wireless Data Loading will let pilots access data at high speeds remotely without a hardwire connection, transferring flight plans wirelessly and accelerating preflight actions.


Integrated maintenance and health Monitoring

The integrated maintenance function uses the Vehicle Management System resources to gather all avionics data and to deliver a complete diagnosis at system level. The sensors installed in the helicopter share real-time data that is collected from it, which is further analyzed and used for helicopter health monitoring purposes. It includes the efficiency of components & systems, route mapping & navigation purposes, maintenance, and repair & overhaul (MRO) operations. These improve the overall efficiency of the helicopter and minimize the operational cost. Moreover, the implementation of IoT in helicopters helps to connect with various other entities belonging to the supply chain. For instance, if any component or system fails during the operation, then the maintenance service providers can immediately track and take necessary precautions to avoid accidents.


Liquid Crystal Displays

The old cathode ray tubes (CRT) have been replaced with modern liquid crystal displays (LCD) that brings brighter, clearer, high resolution picture to the pilots; runs cooler, creates less heat in cockpit. They also offer Lower cost of operation – increases reliability by 2X and lowers weight by seven pounds per display unit. It provides quick “plug and play” display replacement solution – can be done in less than a day – no downtime


TTEthernet Avionics Backbone

Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider helicopter features a technological breakthrough in the networked distributed Integrated Modular Avionics (IMA) architecture based on Time Triggered Ethernet (TTEthernet) supplied by TTTech. According to Dave Adams, mission systems project lead at Sikorsky Aircraft, the S-97 Raider is the first rotorcraft platform to feature TTEthernet.


TTTech defines time-triggered or “deterministic” Ethernet as a networked communication technology that uses time scheduling to bring deterministic real-time communication to standard IEEE 802 Ethernet. The deterministic Ethernet uses a global sense of time and scheduling which is shared between network components.


“We have an extremely low bus utilization there because what we’ve done on this aircraft, is really designed it as a system that has a very modernized backbone and high bandwidth connectivity and data bus architecture, so that when we go to production we can implement numerous advanced sensors and both tactical communications and weapons on this backbone bus and we’ll have plenty of bandwidth to accommodate those new sensors,” Adams told Avionics Magazine. “The flight control system is our third instantiation of the triplex fly-by-wire system, which is interconnected through the time triggered Ethernet as well.”


“We also implement ARINC interfaces as well for some of the subsystems were not Ethernet capable, so they were ARINC inputs and outputs so we support that architecture for digital data buses as well,” Adams said. “There are [Controller Area Network] CAN buses on the aircraft as well. But really the core underlying bus is this time-triggered Ethernet bus for high-speed data and that provides the most growth. Whereas, when we add sensors and tactical features in the future they will be riding on that bus. We do not have 1553 on the Raider, we’re trying to push forward there and go toward these high bandwidth buses in the future.”


Another innovative avionics approach included on the Raider are the integration of remote processing units with the ability to control the aircraft’s electrical power systems remotely through soft bezel controls. Inside the cockpit, the Raider team also focused heavily on reducing pilot workload with no overhead switches, levers or circuit breakers. Bill Fell, chief test pilot for the Raider, said the first test flight showed that the increased automation is a huge improvement from cockpits of the past.



Market growth

Size is expected to reach USD 37.4 billion by 2025 from USD 31.7 billion in 2019, registering a CAGR of 2.8% from 2019 to 2025. Increased demand for military helicopters is a significant growth driver for the helicopters market. Increased demand for light weight and emergency medical services (EMS) helicopters are other drivers for the market.


Moreover, the Chinese government is also modernizing its military helicopters and it will be done in the next five years. Thus, it would propel the growth of the helicopter market analysis during the review period. Moreover, companies such as Airbus SAS and Bell Helicopters are investing in the simulator training facilities in India and China. This would help to provide training to the pilots for various commercial and military helicopter applications.


In the next few years, governments of several countries, namely, Singapore, India, and China would focus on smart city development. In these countries, air taxi can be used as a means of public transport and it would thus, create opportunities for lightweight helicopters


Major companies in the air ambulance services market are focused on expanding their business in regions, namely, North America and Asia-Pacific. For instance, in August 2019, AirLife Medical Inc., an air ambulance service provider, launched a new facility in North Carolina, in the U.S. With this new facility, the company has started providing air services during emergency and traumatic situations. Similarly, in February 2018, Babcock Scandinavian Air Ambulance (BSAA) launched the AW169 helicopter. It is used to serve the Nordic countries as an EMS.


Based on weight, the helicopter market is fragmented into a lightweight, medium weight, and heavyweight. Amongst these, the lightweight segment is expected to showcase maximum growth during the forecast period. The rise in government expenditure on border security is expected to propel the growth of the market segment. The lightweight helicopter can be equipped with gun systems and thus, is suited for multirole combat operations.


More than 50% of the global civil & commercial helicopter deliveries in 2018 were light helicopters, mainly due to their operational efficiency and easy maneuverability, which are essential for civil & commercial applications such as transport, civil utility, and offshore, among others. High demand for civil & commercial applications such as short distance air transport and a rise in the number of offshore rigs have also fueled the demand for light helicopters.


The transport helicopters segment is projected to lead the application market during the forecast period due to the increasing demand for helicopters as a mode of inter- and intra-city transport. The vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities of helicopters, along with the lower space requirements for helipads as compared to airports, are the main factors fueling this demand. Travel by helicopter also saves time as compared to other modes of transport, which is another factor contributing to the demand for light and medium transport helicopters.


North America is estimated to account for the largest share of the helicopters in 2019. The US was the highest military spender in 2018, with a large chunk of the investment focused on the procurement of various military helicopters. The US is a lucrative market for helicopter OEMs in the North American region as the government is investing increasingly to enhance the quality and effectiveness of helicopters and their systems. For instance, in September 2018, Boeing (US) won a USD 2.4 billion helicopter contract from the US Air Force for the procurement of 84 Boeing MH-139 helicopters.



Along with this, the demand for civil & commercial helicopters is continually increasing. North America also has a presence of major helicopter manufacturers – Companies such as Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. (US), Boeing (US), and Lockheed Martin Corporation (US), among others. Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL) is expected to produce large number of commercial and military helicopters in the next few years. This would augment the helicopter market size in Asia-Pacific.



Companies, such as Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Airbus SAS oer lightweight helicopters for applications in tourism, corporate services, and search and rescue operations.  Some of Key Companies are Airbus SAS , Bell Helicopter,  Textron,  Boeing Company, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Ltd. Korea Aerospace Industries, Ltd. Leonardo SPA Lockheed Martin Corporation MD Helicopters, Inc. Robinson Helicopter Company Russian Helicopters, JSC



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